ethical engagements & thoughtful actions

[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my advising practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter — a letter addressed to the whole group and that comes before a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work — in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I will share the letters here.]

13 May 2012

Dear friends,

If you’ve been reading a subtext in my preface letters, it won’t surprise you to hear that I don’t believe that art needs to live in galleries, museums, theaters, or other spaces designated to collect or showcase the “best” work.  In fact, I think that cultural institutions like museums, galleries, theaters, and concert halls have done a lot to inhibit the development of the arts, by essentializing what art is, and do a lot to make it harder for people work as artists.

I know, I know, I know… that’s a loaded statement and I’ll have to spend the rest of this letter unpacking it and explaining myself.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these cultural spaces aren’t viable sites for artists to exhibit and perform work. They are. I’m not saying that the economics of the arts aren’t tethered to these institutions. In large part, they are. These sites simply aren’t the only spaces available to us, and the definition of “artist” promoted and recycled by these institutions isn’t the only way to be an artist. Any fixation we might develop about getting our work into these spaces or aligning our lives with these institutions may take energy from both engaging in our practice and in conceptualizing new spaces in which our work might have vibrant impact.

So, just to be clear, I’m not outright rejecting galleries, theaters, or other institutional spaces. Those spaces just aren’t necessarily the subject of this letter. Although they might be – depending on the kind of interventions one might be interested in making. Ultimately, the site of artistic labor depends on how one conceptualizes one’s practice. And I can’t tell you how to conceptualize your practice.

When I was a young art student, I hit a wall. I repeatedly found myself asking “so what?” in the face of the curriculum that was being forced upon me. I was being taught to be technically adept and being trained to serve the creative economy, but to be frank, the social relevance of my work as an artist seemed entirely absent from my studio education. My own intuition drew me to the idea that my labor – as an artist and as a person – should matter in the world; that it should somehow advance those ideas and values important to me. It struck me as odd that my best modality for making meaning – the arts – and the cultural sites that most held my interest, sites where social questions are raised and solutions are tried, seemed to be opposed to each other. More than this, they seemed to be in conflict. Although they might have been in conflict in the public sphere, they were not in conflict within me, and my interest in aligning the arts with our most pressing human questions grew more intense the more I understood the division.

Granted I was educated in at the end of the Modernist era, when art for art’s sake was still argued to be the only avenue to serious critical or commercial consideration. And my education was conducted within a curricular bubble, away from the frenetic changes occurring in larger culture. In other words, my education wasn’t just isolated from what was happening in the world, it was also situated within the ideology of a very precise moment in history. I share this not to critique my education, but to illustrate my earlier point about institutions. All parts of our culture don’t advance or shift at the same pace. Cultural institutions, by design, are conservative and slow to make fundamental changes. This protects them from chasing every fad; but can also lead to stagnancy and, at their worst, a reproduction of ideas rather than the production of new knowledge and, as I discussed last time, ways of knowing.

I began to see a way forward after taking a philosophy class that focused on Plato’s Republic. I started to understand that my ideas about living were imprinted in me through a number of discourses that were both ancient and also largely invisible. Without being conscious of it, I understood my life as having two dominant spheres, the public and the private – or to use other language, the political and the domestic. I soon learned that this division is used to organize our lives and to maintain a cultural status quo. Once I started to read Feminist theory, I started to understand that the personal is the political – that is, how I (all of us) conduct myself in my private life is not segregated from my (and our shared) public life — and I learned that my studio was not, as much as I or my teachers might try to make it, isolated from the big human questions. Indeed, the curricular emphasis on making the studio a private space (or, at least, a space overly-preoccupied with the vision and formal concerns of the artist), which was central to my education, is part of a process of stripping the arts of their power. Anytime we claim to be outside our world’s dominant political discourse, we are really supporting the existing power hierarchies. When we engage our values in dialogue with those discourses, we take steps toward embracing our creative potential.

We have a degree criterion that asks us to consider these questions in relation to our own practice:

Ethical Engagement & Thoughtful Action
Contemporary art practitioners are engaged with the world in many ways, situating themselves in relationship to others through a range of modalities, aesthetics and situations.  Students will demonstrate their understanding of how contemporary art practices have grown beyond established sites of artistic discourse, presentation, and performance, and document how their own practice is reflectively and critically engaged with the world.

You’ll notice that this criterion is written very broadly, allowing you – for purposes of graduation — to situate your practice in traditional settings, while reflecting an understanding of how contemporary artist are moving beyond those settings. I hope you’ll also see that it’s an invitation to think in new ways and to be part of a larger process of building and advancing culture.

This criterion is also about audience and accessibility. Arts institutions are not, by and large, integrated into the lives of most people. Because the arts aren’t connected to the daily lives of people, large parts of the population don’t respect or advocate for the arts. The dynamic that alienates people from the arts is complex and political, but the solution to it is only going to come when those of us convinced that art is part of a full and meaningful life do the work to change the mechanics of alienation. Complaining about the lack of support for what we do (while perhaps a starting place) is not a strategy for making change. And we cannot expect those who’ve worked to isolate the arts to change and somehow become our advocates. We can, however, be conscious about making connections between what we do and what others do in the world. And we can be conscious of engaging our making processes in dialogue with those things that matter to us. In doing this, we might just shift the cultural discourse around the arts and creativity.

When I talk about this degree criterion with students I have learned that it’s very easy for people to assume that I’m encouraging them to be activist artists in a particular mold. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I have great respect for a range of activist artists, my interest in unpacking this criterion is related to my commitment to a pluralistic approach to the arts – and is not interested in substituting one narrow view with another. I believe that there are many ways that contemporary art practices have grown beyond established sites of artistic discourse, presentation, and performance, and I’m writing to encourage you to think about the ways that your practice can be reflectively and critically engaged with the world.

I’d like to offer a few examples of what I mean. First, my friend and colleague, Yuriko Saito, in her book, Everyday Aesthetics, looks at our everyday aesthetic experiences, and points to the ways that our routine aesthetic judgments influence the shape of the contemporary world and impact our quality of life. As artists our work can be engaged within everyday lives, in our most intimate encounters, and in service to creating experience that enables transformative exchange within the mundane workings of any day. This doesn’t necessarily require special gear or an invitation to play the Lincoln Center. It might simply mean finding a way to puncture the everydayness of experience through a gesture, intervention, or invitation to see the world differently.

I think about this, too, through the work of our colleague, Pam Hall. When she was an artist-in-residence at the Medical School in her province, she was bringing to bear the full epistemic power of her artist’s mind to seeing medicine. She used her gaze as an artist to look at the medical gaze  — and, critically, to reflect back what she saw in ethical and generative ways. While she created visual artwork and installed it in the school, her residency wasn’t focused on gifting her creativity to an audience, but rather in engaging those in the medical school in a process of collaborative authorship. The works developed reflected the experiences and meaning of the community.

A third example can be found in the experience of the Artist Mentors with whom I work at New Urban Arts. These emerging artists invite young people – often young people who have been told that they are not creative or, more devastatingly, that they don’t matter – into a creative process and help them develop a personal creative practice. As I’ve been intimating to you through my letters this term, this process of developing creative practice – as something distinct from gathering the skills of an art tradition – is intimately tied to the power and possibility of voice, expression, and the ability to use one’s personal agency to effect change in the world. At New Urban Arts practice becomes something that’s relational and cultivated within community, rather than something private and individualized.  A conversation between my New Urban Arts colleagues CJ Jimenez and Jason Yoon in a recent post on Artsblog speaks to this process and, what Maxine Greene might call, the unfinished nature of the conversation.

Earlier I made the point that interventions can be made within existing arts institutions. From my own tradition I think of the ways that traditionally excluded identities and discourses have been brought into the gallery, compelling curators, critics and audience to re-think their assumptions about the role arts plays in our world. Influential to me are artists like Félix Gonzalez-Torres, Kara Walker, and Nayland Blake – each of whom raised/raises questions about the nature of contemporary identity and experience — specifically race, class, sexual orientation / practice, and gender — and also how the historical languages of the art reify cultural hierarchies. I also made a point about activist art and my respect for it. In the area of performance and theater I’ve been especially moved by the way Rites and Reasons Theater, in my hometown of Providence, has developed a co-authoring technique for bringing forward the diverse cultural expression of peoples living in the Americas; and by the way the ideas of Augusto Boal, best known through the book and widespread actions of Theater of the Oppressed, have allowed performance to be a tool for change. As a young person I was called to social action by the graphic design of Gran Fury, the creative collective associated with ACTUP NY. Clearly in all of the areas I name, the examples I’m offering are specific to my wanderings and don’t, in any way, represent the totality of practices or possibilities of making thoughtful, ethical actions in the world as an artist. They are a reflection of my experience, and I expect that those who inspire you will reflect the questions that matter to you.

In her 1997 book, Conversations Before the End of Time, Suzi Gablik invites artists to consider how their efforts can matter in the face of the critical and unprecedented questions facing us in the 21st century. She asks how artists can move beyond the assumptive idea of personal vision and instead think of their skills and abilities in relationship with the questions being posed by the world. In many ways our degree criterion is asking a similar question, inviting all of us to consider how creative ways of problem-solving and knowing can be integrated into daily life– and how we might consider setting aside the exceptionalism and arrogance of the idea that art is somehow the province of genius. In turn, by sharing these reflections with you, I’m asking you to think about this in relation to what you’re doing, to your aspirations, and in the hopes that you might begin to consider the possibilities of this degree criterion as you begin to plan next semester.

Before I close, I want to remind you that we’re barreling toward the end of the semester. Several pieces of critical administrative detail have started to hit your in-box – or will soon arrive. First, you recently received a call to propose workshops, performances and exhibitions for the summer residency. As you know, there is a degree requirement to show your work once during a residency before G5, and I want to encourage you to consider using this residency as the time you might do this. Also, if you hope to pursue a career in higher education, organizing panel discussions or academic workshops are great resume items. Why not put together an academic conversation focused on an idea or topic you’re pursuing (it’s what I do for my workshops!)? If I can be helpful to you in thinking about a residency proposal, please let me know in packet five!

You’ll also be asked to submit three names of advisors you’d like to work with next semester. If I can be helpful in your thinking about this, please let me know how I can help you think through your choices.

Your end-of-the-semester self-evaluation is due one-week after packet five. I take your self-assessment very seriously in the writing of my reports and will not submit a report until your self-evaluation is uploaded to SIS (and my report is what triggers your advancement to next semester). So, just as fair warning, to avoid making work for the Registrar in chasing us down, please get your self-evaluation posted as close to the deadline as you can. I thank you in advance for doing this!

Finally, this is a good time to start thinking about your study plan for next semester. If I can be helpful in thinking with you about this, please let me know.

I hope this finds you well and enjoying a most excellent day!

Cheers, Pete

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